Lukashenka and Belarus media spread falsehoods about the forced grounding of Ryanair plane
Belarusian authorities try to justify the
Belarusian authorities try to justify the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, but their explanations lack credibility
As Western countries step up the pressure on Belarus over the forceful grounding of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius in Minsk to arrest Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, President Aleksandr Lukashenka and pro-governmental media pushed multiple contradictory claims about the incident. A DFRLab analysis shows that Belarusian authorities and media propagandists responded to this event by disseminating unsubstantiated explanations, and state media published misleading content about the flight. The available evidence shows that the Belarusian government is not transparent about the incident.
On May 23, 2021, a Ryanair civilian aircraft flying from Athens to Vilnius diverted from its course and unexpectedly landed at Minsk National Airport in the Belarusian capital. Ryanair explained this move by saying that the Belarusian air traffic controller (ATC) notified the aircraft crew about a potential bomb threat on board and instructed them to land in Minsk, but no bomb was found on the airplane upon inspection in Minsk. After landing in Belarus, police detained journalist Roman Protasevich, former editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, who was on the Ryanair plane together with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Protasevich is accused by the government of inciting social hatred, organizing group actions that violate public order, and organizing mass riots in Belarus. He is also included in the list of “individuals involved in terrorist activity” in Belarus. He left Belarus in 2019 and moved to Poland. After his arrest, Belarusian law enforcement authorities released a video of his “confession,” and Protasevich’s family members argued that he seems to have been beaten and under duress.
Flight Radar data shows that the Ryanair plane diverted from its course when it was flying over Belarusian territory and approximately 30 km away from the Lithuanian border. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary qualified the actions of Belarusian authorities as “state-sponsored piracy” and added that he believes that agents of the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) also were on board. The E.U. promptly imposed sanctions on Belarus and urged E.U.-based airline companies to avoid flying over Belarus. However, Belarusian authorities claim that putting pressure on Belarus for this incident is unjustified.
Belarus claims Minsk National Airport received an email from Hamas
The day after the incident, Artem Sikorsky, Director of the Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications of Belarus, claimed that staff at Minsk National Airport received an email that read: “We, Hamas soldiers, demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union renounces its support for Israel in this war. It is known that participants of Delfi Economic Forum are returning home on flight 4978. There is a bomb on that plane. If you do not comply with our demands, the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.”
Sikorsky went on to assert that the Minsk regional Air Traffic Control (ATC) center tried to reach the Ryanair office in Lithuania regarding the contents of the email, but ATC could not reach Ryanair. Sikorsky clarified that the Belarusian ATC informed the airplane crew about the bomb threat but did not pressure the aircraft to land in Minsk and that the pilot made this decision independently. Three days later, Lukashenka asserted that the mysterious email was actually sent from Switzerland, to the airports of Athens, Vilnius, and Minsk at the same time.
The Russian investigative media outlet Dossier Center wrote that journalists had obtained and analyzed a copy of the email supposedly sent by Hamas. It turned out that the message was sent to Minsk 24 minutes after the Belarusian ATC informed Ryanair pilot about the “threat.” A transcript of a conversation between the Belarusian ATC and plane crew shows that the Belarusian ATC informed the pilot about the bomb at 12:30 Belarus time, but the email was sent to the Minsk airport at 12:57.
Moreover, Lithuania confirmed that they received this email, but the Greek Civil Aviation Authority stated that they had not received such a warning. Additionally, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied that Hamas had any knowledge of or connection to this event, and the deputy head of the Palestinian movement’s Politburo, Musa Abu Marzouk, criticized the Belarusian government for its behavior. Indeed, it would be odd for Hamas to address Belarus — a non-E.U. member state — demanding that the E.U. stop supporting Israel. Lastly, a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip had come into force on May 21, 2021, two days before the Ryanair incident.
On May 23, Belarusian outlet Euroradio released part of a conversation between the Ryanair aircraft pilot and a Belarusian dispatcher from the Minsk airport. In the recording, the airport dispatcher tells the pilot that for security reasons, the airport recommends that he land the plane. The pilot asks where the report on the bomb threat originated from and how the airport got the information, to which the dispatcher replies that the airport security service received an email about it. Ryanair later confirmed that the Belarus ATC informed its crew about the supposed threat on board.
Subsequently, state-owned media outlet Belta and the Belarus 1 TV channel released another part of the same conversation. Russian subtitles of the audio record show the “dispatcher” asking “the crew” which of the following recommended that the airplane land in Minsk Airport: Ryanair, the departure airport, or the arrival airport. According to the subtitles, “the crew” replies that it was their own recommendation to land in Minsk. The press secretary of the National Airport of Minsk, Romina Samatkhanova, also asserted that pilot requested landing at the Minsk airport.
The DFRLab compared these two parts of the conversations and found that most probably, Belarus 1 channel distorted who was saying what in the second part of conversation. The Ryanair pilot’s words are attributed to the “dispatcher” in subtitles, while the dispatcher’s words are attributed to the “pilot.” Most probably, the subtitles were mislabeled in order to show that it was the Ryanair pilot who requested landing in Minsk, when in fact, it appeared to be the dispatcher in the audio recording. On May 25, Minsk Airport released readouts from the conversation that proved Belarus 1 mislabeled the subtitles and it was the Belarusian ATC that recommended landing in Minsk, not the Ryanair pilot. Ryanair also confirmed that Belarusian ATC instructed its aircraft to land in the nearest airport in Minsk.
Just a “coincidence”
Belarusian authorities claimed that it was a coincidence that Roman Protasevich ended up on the plane, and that his presence on board had nothing to do with the landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk. One article by Belarusian state TV and radio claimed that Protasevich was flying with a friend, who took a photo of him in the airport bus in Minsk and sent it to another Belarusian blogger, Anton Motolko. The latter published Roman’s photo in one of the Belarusian Telegram channels, tipping off the police that Protasevich was in Minsk. Russian outlet RIA Novosti also wrote that Protasevich was arrested when border security identified him while checking the documents of all passengers from Ryanair flight.
However, Lukashenka made a statement on May 26 contradicting these earlier claims pushed by media outlets about Protasevich’s arrest. He announced that there was a terrorist (referring to Protasevich) on the Ryanair plane and Belarus knew about it before the plane crossed the Belarusian border. He went on to say, “Whether there was a bomb or not, if I was told that there was a terrorist on the plane, I would immediately give the order to land the plane.” The video evidence from the Ryanair airplane also shows that Belarusian authorities did not seem to take the usual security measures to ensure the safety of passengers in the event of a bona fide terrorist threat. The passengers were not immediately evacuated from the airplane and some of them continued waiting inside the airplane or nearby while the authorities detained Protasevich.
Belarus, defender of Europe
Pro-government Telegram channels presented the forced landing of the plane as an act of benevolence on the part of Lukashenka. The Pul Pervogo Telegram channel, which is believed to be managed by Lukashenka’s press office, wrote that Belarus protected Europe in spite of the current political situation and it never refuses to help others. The Telegram post said that even though the plane had almost left Belarusian airspace and Vilnius was closer than Minsk, the aircraft asked Minsk — not Vilnius — for permission to land, to which Lukahsenka personally agreed. Another post in the Pul Pervogo Telegram channel claimed that Athens and Vilnius had asked Belarus to allow the airplane to land and it was the pilot who made the decision to land in Minsk. Moreover, Lukashenka claimed on May 26 that airports in Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland did not want to allow the Ryanair airplane to land in these countries.
In fact, the European Union condemned the forced landing of the Ryanair flight in Minsk and called it an “unacceptable incident.” Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland have not confirmed that they refused to accept the Ryanair flight; following the incident, all three countries restricted air traffic with Belarus.
In sum, the Belarusian government tried to assert plausible deniability in the Ryanair incident, but the justifications provided were ill-grounded and inconsistent. The criticism of the Belarusian government from other countries also demonstrated that Minsk has failed to offer a convincing explanation of its behavior, damaging its image even more.
Givi Gigitashvili is a Research Assistant, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.
Cite this case study:
Givi Gigitashvili, “Lukashenka and Belarus media spread falsehoods about the forced grounding of Ryanair plane,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), May 27, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/lukashenka-and-belarus-media-spread-falsehoods-about-the-forced-grounding-of-ryanair-plane-dfca478d9add.
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